All posts tagged Writing

  • Backchannel story: ‘Meet The Ultimate WikiGnome’, February 2015

    My first story for Backchannel, the technology section of Medium.com. Excerpt below.

    Meet The Ultimate WikiGnome

    One Man’s Quest to Rid Wikipedia of Exactly One Grammatical Mistake

    'Meet The Ultimate WikiGnome: One Man’s Quest to Rid Wikipedia of Exactly One Grammatical Mistake' by Andrew McMillen on Backchannel, February 2015

    On a Friday in July 2012, two employees of the Wikimedia Foundation gave a talk at Wikimania, their organization’s annual conference. Maryana Pinchuk and Steven Walling addressed a packed room as they answered a question that has likely popped into the minds of even the most casual users of Wikipedia: who the hell edits the site, and why do they do it?

    Pinchuk and Walling conducted hundreds of interviews to find out. They learned that many serious contributors have an independent streak and thrive off the opportunity to work on any topic they like. Other prolific editors highlight the encyclopedia’s huge global audience or say they derive satisfaction from feeling that their work is of use to someone, no matter how arcane their interests. Then Walling lands on a slide entitled, ‘perfectionism.’ The bespectacled young man pauses, frowning.

    “I feel sometimes that this motivation feels a little bit fuzzy, or a little bit negative in some ways… Like, one of my favorite Wikipedians of all time is this user called Giraffedata,” he says. “He has, like, 15,000 edits, and he’s done almost nothing except fix the incorrect use of ‘comprised of’ in articles.”

    A couple of audience members applaud loudly.

    “By hand, manually. No tools!” interjects Pinchuk, her green-painted fingernails fluttering as she gestures for emphasis.

    “It’s not a bot!” adds Walling. “It’s totally contextual in every article. He’s, like, my hero!”

    “If anybody knows him, get him to come to our office. We’ll give him a Barnstar in person,” says Pinchuk, referring to the coveted virtual medallion that Wikipedia editors award one another.

    Walling continues: “I don’t think he wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I’m gonna serve widows in Africa with the sum of all human knowledge.’” He begins shaking his hands in mock frustration. “He wakes up and says, ‘Those fuckers—they messed it up again!’”

    Giraffedata is something of a superstar among the tiny circle of people who closely monitor Wikipedia, one of the most popular websites in the English-speaking world. About 8 million English Wikipedia articles are visited every hour, yet only a tiny fraction of readers click the ‘edit’ button in the top right corner of every page. And only 30,000 or so people make at least five edits per month to the quickly growing site.

    Giraffedata—a 51-year-old software engineer named Bryan Henderson—is among the most prolific contributors, ranking in the top 1,000 most active editors. While some Wikipedia editors focus on adding content or vetting its accuracy, and others work to streamline the site’s grammar and style, generally few, if any, adopt Giraffedata’s approach to editing: an unrelenting, multi-year project to fix exactly one grammatical error.

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel.

  • Introducing ‘Dispatches’: a weekly email newsletter, March 2014

    In March 2014 I started Dispatches, a weekly newsletter about my three passions: writing, music and reading. A screenshot of the first dispatch, Bikies, suicide contagion and drug wars, is included below.

    'Dispatches #1: Bikies, suicide contagion and drug wars', a weekly email newsletter by Australian freelance journalist Andrew McMillen

    I named it Dispatches after one of my favourite books: Michael Herr’s classic ‘new journalism’ narrative, first published in 1977, which placed the author near the centre of the Vietnam War while reporting for Esquire. I first read it in March 2012 and even writing about it here is almost enough to send me running to my bookshelf to tear through it again. Herr has a remarkable command of language. Clearly, the book comes highly recommended.

    The format will no doubt change over time, but for now I’ve split it into thirds:

    Words – highlighting my newly published writing, when applicable
    Sounds – music and podcast recommendations
    Reads – a selection of the best longform journalism and books I read in the past week

    If you like any of those three things, you might consider subscribing via TinyLetter here. If, like me, you spend too many hours each week immersed in your inbox, you can ‘try before you buy’ by viewing an archive of past mailouts here and deciding whether it’s worth your time. I hope it is.

    Besides offering a more regular way of keeping in touch with my readers than through this rather static blog or my cautious public engagement on social media, Dispatches is intended to be an interactive experiment-in-progress. At 26, I’ve done a reasonable amount of work of developing my own tastes, but I’m certainly open to your suggestions when it comes to reading and music.

    Finally: I’d like to note that Dispatches is inspired by Ryan Holiday’s fantastic monthly reading recommendation newsletter, and by the weekly emails sent by journalism hubs Longform and Longreads. I’m not aiming to compete with any of those mailouts – in part, because all three are so fucking good that I’d be setting myself up to fail. Instead, I’m offering a personalised take on the words and sounds that enter my skull each week and influence the way I interpret the world and write about it.

    Welcome to Dispatches.

  • The Monthly story: ‘Only The Lonely’, August 2013

    A story for the July 2013 issue of The Monthly. The full story appears below; illustration by Jeff Fisher.

    Only The Lonely

    After midnight with ‘Psychic TV’

    On a dark and stormy Thursday night, broadcasting live from a TV studio in northern Sydney, clairvoyant Francis Bevan “reads” one viewer after another, using their birthdate. Margaret, born on 24 June 1961, wants to know whether she’ll ever fall in love again. Laura (12 December 1986) wonders whether she’ll have more kids. Janelle (6 December 1964) asks whether her mother is happy “on the other side”.

    Bevan next turns his attention to Eileen, the night’s oldest caller by some margin. She’ll be 70 on 15 July. In a voicemail message broadcast on the studio’s speakers, Eileen asks what the future holds, “whether there’s any money coming, and will I move?”

    Staring straight into the camera, Bevan tells Eileen she will move, in six to 12 months’ time. She’ll sell her property and end up close to water. Meanwhile, two men, one a father figure, the other closer to her in age, will watch over her.

    “We’re going to get the lovely Mal to use her psychic fingers to pull you out two tarot cards,” says Bevan, as the producer rings a bell to indicate that 90 seconds have elapsed. Malvadee McIver, the smiling, sprightly host, selects two cards from the deck. Bevan glances at the cards.

    “Definitely the sale of the property is going to happen,” he continues. “We’ve got the High Priestess here, and the Knight of Swords. This tells us there’ll be sudden decisions, but positive ones. I hope you’ve enjoyed the reading. Have an absolutely fantastic 2013.”

    This is the format of Psychic TV, a two-year-old program filmed in Frenchs Forest and screened nationally Thursday to Sunday, between 11 pm and 2 am. Queries are raised by Australian viewers and answered by a rotating cast of psychics – tonight, two men and two women – who take turns sitting at a desk beside McIver.

    Bevan, a former police officer, was 2007 NSW Psychic of the Year. He wears a dark suit with a bright pink shirt, and rarely smiles on camera. Fellow psychic healer Christian Adams wears a suit jacket over an open-neck shirt, showing off his crystal pendant, and reads auras by closing his eyes, tilting his head and gesturing wildly.

    While the men could pass for car salesmen, the two women are dressed more suitably for astral travel. Tarot reader Amira Celon wears a striking white caftan with gold accessories. Psychic medium Kerrie Erwin wears a floor-length leopard-print dress and red lipstick. All four are middle-aged.

    The three psychics not directly addressing the viewers remain visible in booths, taking live phone calls. Names, birthdates and star signs are read in a background blur. Time is money, after all. Psychic TV charges $5.45 per minute, or $4.75 for those who have registered their credit card details and authorised $100 in credit. Text messages cost $5 apiece.

    But the night – the crew’s first on the newly constructed, purple-hued set – is not without technical difficulties. At one point the show’s graphical overlay, which displays three phone numbers as well as the command prompts to reach the three psychics in their booths, suddenly disappears. Production manager Danny Stocker runs frantically between the studio and the bank of broadcasting technology stacked in the next room. On the phone to tech support, the 38-year-old barks: “It’s very urgent because we’re not making money!”

    It’s 34 minutes before the graphics reappear on screen. In the interim, McIver enthusiastically repeats the phone numbers every few minutes, but the pace noticeably slows.

    Exactly who watches Psychic TV is not clear. Free-to-air viewers find it on the digital channel TV4ME; Austar subscribers via the Aurora channel. The show’s Facebook page has 12,000 fans, 9000 of whom are women. “A large percentage of the population hasn’t heard of us,” admits Michael Charlesworth, who owns Interactive Media, the company behind the show. He yawns – he’s not usually on set this late. “That’s what we want to change.”

    An hour into the show, at midnight, the production team – uniformly youthful, some still studying media at university – ask whether I’d like a live reading. My details are sent through as a text message. “Andrew was born on 10 February 1988 and requests a general reading. He loves the show!”

    Kerrie Erwin shuffles her cards. “Put your seatbelt on, because you’ve lots of changes ahead, Andrew,” she says, specifying a new career and a move interstate, both of which are news to me. Then she switches to a picture message from Gina, 25, who asks what Erwin “can see happening in the next three months, particularly in romance”.

    Three hours of psychic television pass surprisingly quickly. There are plans to add Wednesday nights to the schedule, which would take the total to 15 hours of live advertising each week. When Bevan ends the night’s final call, the automated telephone system reports that the four psychics, plus a few others listed on-screen as working from home, have clocked 1231 minutes – a gross taking of about $6000. (The call times are rounded up, as technically the four psychics have potentially 720 minutes between them.) A producer tells me that 1400 minutes makes for a “good night”.

    It’s just past 2 am. The crew are outside in the chilly air, smoking. Amira Celon kindly offers to drive me to my destination. Her silver Toyota Yaris is making a strange noise. We travel south, along State Route 29, for ten puzzling minutes before she determines the cause: it’s the bottom of her white caftan, trailing out the door.

  • Shorthand story: ‘The Making of England v Australia’, July 2013

    A story for Shorthand, a Brisbane-based digital technology company. Excerpt below; click the image to read the full story.

    The Making of ‘England v Australia’

    The Making of 'England v Australia' by Andrew McMillen for Shorthand, July 2013

    The first project released by Australian digital publishing company Shorthand details one of sport’s ultimate rivalries, yet ironically, it only came to fruition after partnering with an iconic British media outlet which recently launched down under. In collaboration with the Guardian Australia, ‘England v Australia’ is a long-form interactive story that traces the history of the the two countries’ ongoing contest, which spans generations, oceans and sporting codes.

    “We wanted to develop a tool that would be used by the publishing industry,” says Shorthand executive manager Ben Fogarty. “And what better way to find out what it needs to become than working with someone like the Guardian, with their experience and their approach to storytelling, news and features? It was a great opportunity to get straight into the thick of it with a very well-known, professional organisation, and see how and where Shorthand fits into that scenario.”

    The Brisbane-based start-up was founded in March 2013 in recognition of a problem that had emerged in online journalism: how could publishers tell ‘epic’ stories without the requisite eye-popping budgets, labour-intensive web development, and months of lead time?

    In short: how to craft an interactive masterpiece like ‘Snow Fall’ without breaking the bank each and every time? The start-up saw a gap in the market to provide a high-quality, affordable platform for digital storytellers. Although Shorthand’s goal was clear, the team still had many unanswered questions.

    “‘England v Australia’ helped us define our scope very well,” says Fogarty. “We had a big question around where the content was going to come from, and how digital storytelling is crafted. Do you start with media and put text around it? Do you grab text and find the media to go with it? Being part of that process from an early stage with the Guardian Australia has helped shape in our minds how to create the product features that’d work best for telling these sorts of stories for the web.”

    To read the full story – and get a better idea of the tool that the company is developing – visit Shorthand’s website.

  • Wired story: ‘Daft Punk’s album premiere in Wee Waa, Australia’, May 2013

    A story for Wired.com – my first contribution to the website. Excerpt below.

    We Went to the Daft Punk Album Premiere in Wee Waa, Australia, Pop. 2,100
    by Andrew McMillen / Photographs by Rachael Hall

    Wired story: "Daft Punk's Australian album premiere in Wee Waa" by freelance journalist Andrew McMillen, May 2013. Photo by Rachael Hall

    WEE WAA, Australia – The world premiere of the latest Daft Punk album, Random Access Memories, was originally scheduled to take place on May 17 at a farm show in the rural Australian town of Wee Waa, population 2,100. The unconventional choice of locale made worldwide news, as intended. The event (and its marketing) was always about more than just two French guys releasing an album: It was an attempt to breathe life into the idea that a distinct collection of songs could still be relevant in 2013, when digitally downloaded singles dominate and launch dates have become almost meaningless.

    Imagine Sony’s frustration, then, when Random Access Memories trickled onto the internet on May 14, three days ahead of the intended world premiere in Wee Waa, and Daft Punk hastily started streaming the album on iTunes to tide over listeners till the actual release date. The impact on the planned celebration was immediate. A journalist from the local newspaper The Narrabri Courier told Wired that the Wee Waa Motel experienced 37 out of 60 cancellations in the day following the leak. What had been sold as a world premiere now seemed humdrum, an experience that anyone with an internet connection, BitTorrent or iTunes could have.

    To many music fans, Tuesday’s news was an inevitability, and surprising only in its lateness: most big releases appear online weeks, or even months ahead of their true street date. So what value, if any, does an album release event have after once an internet leak has removed the mystery? I went to Wee Waa to find out.

    When I wake up on the morning of 79th Annual Wee Waa Show, I add Random Access Memories to my to collection on the streaming music service Rdio, a process that takes only minutes. During the seven-hour drive to Wee Waa, the temptation to listen to the album is powerful. After all, it’s right there. I resist, though, out of respect for the album and the experience ahead. I figure that saving that crucial first listen for the first night will be worth it.

    Situated 560 kilometers (347 miles) north-west of Sydney, Australia’s most populated city, Wee Waa was previously known for its cotton production, and little else. The choice to host the album launch here had everything to do with sheer disorientation — hence the global headlines. Sony first floated the idea with the Narrabri Shire Council in February, two months before the news was made public in mid-April. The Wee Waa Show committee discussed at length how the showgrounds would cope with the influx of tourists; local accommodation was fully booked soon after the news broke.

    This three-day event is an important cultural staple of the region, even when Daft Punk isn’t around. The show format combines elements of agricultural presentations (cattle judging, pet shows) with competitions (horse-riding, cake-baking) and carnival rides familiar to attendees of American state fairs. It’s easy for city-dwelling outsiders to poke fun at these meets, but for local farming families, these regional shows provide a welcome respite in their routine. It’s a chance to put down tools for a couple of days, socialize with one another, and celebrate successes.

    In the days before the main event, rumors of a last-minute appearance from the French duo still circulate, and Sony stokes the flames by refusing to rule out the possibility. On Friday, there’s talk of the local airport being temporarily closed for a couple of mysterious, high-security chartered flights. Perhaps Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo had elected to make the trek after all, people say; perhaps their statements to the contrary were a smokescreen to deter all but the true believers, the fans who still thought an album launch meant something, leak or no leak.

    For the full story, and more photographs, visit Wired.com.

  • The Monthly story: ‘Chalking The Walk’, May 2013

    A story for The Monthly in the May 2013 issue – my first contribution to the magazine, in ‘The Nation Reviewed’ section. The full story appears below; the illustration is credited to Jeff Fisher.

    Chalking The Walk

    The Monthly story: 'Chalking The Walk' by Andrew McMillen, May 2013On a Tuesday morning in March, 80-odd young people wearing red T-shirts hopped off two buses in Lismore, in northern New South Wales, and began canvassing shoppers and retailers in the central business district. Their quest, as declared on their chests, was to help end extreme poverty. Not in Lismore per se, but globally, by petitioning the federal government to bump up its foreign aid spending.

    The team was one of many converging on Canberra from around the country, as part of “The Roadtrip”, a week-long campaign organised by the Oaktree Foundation, the youth-run group that also arranged the MAKEPOVERTYHISTORY concert in 2006. About eight hundred “ambassadors” were taking part all over the country. Their aim was to gather 100,000 signatures, or around 125 each, over the course of the trip via a smartphone app.

    The target didn’t sound overly ambitious. But, by noon, many of the locals out and about in central Lismore had been approached several times. Some were starting to get ticked off. “We’re actually irritating people now,” noted a group leader, Tammy, and the entire team retreated to a McDonald’s restaurant, where the buses were parked. One overweight team member was in tears. A local woman had accosted her, shouting: “If you stopped eating at fuckin’ McDonald’s, there wouldn’t be any poverty!” The canvasser’s peers moved in to soothe her. “That’s really rude,” someone countered.

    Three days earlier, the volunteers, aged from 16 to 26, had met for the first time at the University of Queensland in Brisbane to undertake an intensive course in political campaigning. Most were university students; a handful were still in high school. Ebony from Townsville was a champion skateboarder pining for her board. James, 21, was a soccer-mad Scot. Emily Rose, a petite redhead, showed off an unnerving party trick: the ability to dislocate her limbs at will. Each had stumped up $400 to cover food, travel and accommodation costs.

    The ambassadors had been taught some handy lines: “The door to ending poverty is opened by thousands”; “Two-thirds of the 1.3 billion worldwide living in poverty are our neighbours”; and “Australia’s fair share is just 70 cents in every $100 to fight global poverty”. This last line was central to the campaign. In 2000, Australia agreed to adopt the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, aimed at reducing extreme poverty. This meant setting aside 0.5% of Australia’s gross national income for foreign aid by 2015 (recently put off till 2016) and 0.7% by 2020. Currently, the nation contributes 0.37%.

    “The government has made a commitment,” the Roadtrip ambassadors pitched to shoppers. “We’re here to keep them true to that.” At night, the team slept rough in local church and sports club halls. By day, when not canvassing or on the buses, the team courted the local media, debriefed, attended further campaigning lessons and enjoyed “personal energising time”, as spare hours were denoted on the itinerary. Some members worried that they were falling behind on their petition targets. “Relax, it’s not about the signatures,” said a group leader. “It’s about the movement.”

    The day before they were in Lismore, the team had detoured briefly to the retirees’ paradise of Bribie Island, where half the group “chalked the boardwalk” with messages – “Help keep the promise of a fair share!” – while the other half were assigned the task of “painting the town red”, by asking local businesses to display campaign posters in their shop windows.

    Many shop owners were charmed enough to comply. “I don’t think they’ll achieve anything, but good luck to them,” a 74-year-old manager said. A girl serving ice-cream next door could barely remember the pitch – “something about foreign aid?” – but said she assented to their request because “they were young, and looked like they were important”.

    Wyatt Roy, the 22-year-old local MP, joined the ambassadors for a barbecue lunch. Wearing sunglasses and a crisp white shirt with rolled-up sleeves, he stood on a picnic table and said, “In this job, very often do people come to me with problems, and very rarely do they come with solutions. Thanks so much for doing what you’re doing.” As the team left Bribie, a sudden downpour washed away the chalked messages. The ambassadors coasted into Canberra two days later, via Kempsey and Port Macquarie, late on Wednesday afternoon, with 47,000 digital signatures.

    The next morning, at seven o’clock, the various busloads from around the country assembled at Parliament House. A giant map of Australia had been painted on the lawn, and the eight hundred ambassadors stood within their respective state boundaries. Chanting slogans, they made a lot of noise. Greens MPs hung around. A cherry picker was on hand so that TV crews and Oaktree’s media team could take shots from above. Bob Carr, the foreign minister, addressed them. “We are on target for 0.5%,” he said, before turning and gesturing behind him. “It’s up to you to persuade everyone in that building that they’ve got to act!”

    Scores of meetings had been scheduled between ambassadors and their local MPs, but many representatives either cancelled or sent staff in their place. Julie Bishop, the shadow foreign minister, slated to speak at the morning assembly, sent her apologies, too.

    The bus trip home, via Sydney, was a long one. A question kept coming up: had they actually made a difference? Was Wayne Swan, the treasurer, any more inclined to heed their call to increase spending on foreign aid by a third, to 0.5% of gross national income? His sixth federal budget will answer that, on 14 May. No one is holding their breath.

  • CNET story: ‘The Man Who Virtually Has It All’, March 2013

    A feature story for CNET Australia; excerpt below.

    The man who virtually has it all

    A 30 year-old Sydneysider has amassed a small fortune by trading virtual items for real cash in the online game Entropia Universe. What next, though?

    Zachurn "Deathifier" Emegen in Entropia Universe, pictured as part of 'The Man Who Virtually Has It All' story for CNET Australia, March 2013

    In game, the nearest moon to Planet Calypso sits huge in the sky, framed against a blanket of twinkling stars and space clouds. Surrounding mountains tower above and oddly bendy palm trees sway in a gentle breeze. It is beside the teleporter located at Camp Icarus, Planet Calypso’s seaside outpost for new players, that I met with Zachurn “Deathifier” Emegen, leader of the Dark Knights society and one of the wealthiest men ever to play Entropia Universe.

    With a few quick mouse gestures, Deathifier — a tall, handsome avatar clad in shiny red armour — had spawned a Quad-Wing Interceptor, an impressive and expensive-looking aircraft. He then added me to the vehicle’s guest list and invited me to take a seat inside. Our destination? Treasure Island.

    Deathifier is the owner of the 25-square-kilometre plot of in-game land called Treasure Island. He purchased it for US$26,500 in December 2004 and set a Guinness World Record for the largest amount spent on a virtual item. We had to take the long air route, though, because Entropia Universe game developer MindArk had, without notice, disabled the teleporter that allows new players to travel between Camp Icarus and Treasure Island with ease.

    My pilot wasn’t pleased about this unexpected change: he’s reliant on hunting tourism for much of his income, and if players can’t easily get there via teleporter, he’s missing out on potential Project Entropia Dollars (PED), the in-game currency that’s tied to the United States dollar at a fixed exchange rate of 10-to-one. (Treasure Island cost 265,000 PED in 2004.)

    In real life, outside of this vast virtual planet and its two continents, Deathifier is David Storey, a 30-year-old Sydneysider who has been playing Entropia Universe for almost 10 years. Throughout that decade, behind the screen, in-game investments and earnings have comprised the bulk of Storey’s income. With help from a handful of silent partners, whose identities he has never revealed, Storey has invested over US$1 million into the game. The $26,500 Treasure Island purchase broke even in its first year, thanks to Storey’s tireless development, salesmanship and marketing, both online and off.

    At first, this is a strange concept to get one’s head around. This man makes a good living by spending his work week inside a computer game, a space more readily associated with fun and entertainment than commerce and profit. While Storey piloted the Quad-Wing Interceptor south-west across vast oceans and jagged mountain ranges toward Treasure Island, my avatar sat in the gunner’s seat — the aircraft is armed and able to shoot down opposing vehicles if necessary — while we spoke over Skype.

    I asked him whether it’s been difficult to separate the fun from the business side of the game. “They’ve always been intertwined,” Storey replied. “At some points, it’s been more for fun; at others, more for business. More recently, I’ve transitioned more toward business, because the fun elements have declined, so to speak. The core gameplay hasn’t changed in 10 years.”

    To read the full story, visit CNET.

  • Rolling Stone story: ‘Building A Better Brain: Wired on Nootropics’, November 2012

    A 4,000 word feature story published in the November 2012 edition of Rolling Stone Australia; my first non-music feature for the magazine. Click the below image to view a PDF version, or scroll down to read the article text.

    Building A Better Brain: Wired on Nootropics
    By Andrew McMillen / Illustration by Amanda Upton

    A new generation of “smart drugs” that promise to enhance cognitive ability are now available, but are they the key to the human race’s next evolutionary leap or merely 21st century snake oil? Rolling Stone finds out…

    Before he swallowed the designer drug NZT, Bradley Cooper was having a shitty day. Scratch that; he was having a shitty life. Cooper was an unproductive, depressed writer with few prospects and fewer friends. His long-suffering girlfriend had recently left him. His unkempt appearance implied that his deep apathy extended to his body image. Here was a man broken by the accrued stress and malaise of living a seemingly pointless, joyless existence in modern day New York City.

    Moments after taking the transparent, odourless NZT pill, though, Cooper’s world changed dramatically. His visual and auditory perceptions sharpened significantly. His brain could instantly summon previously forgotten snatches of glanced-at facts and figures. His empathy and charm were suddenly amplified to the point where he was able to bed a woman who previously loathed him. A burst of inspiration saw him cleaning his apartment for the first time in years while forgoing both food and his usual addiction to nicotine. Within a few hours, Cooper produced a hundred pages of brilliant writing, which pleased his editor like never before.

    As his interior monologue put it, “I was blind; now I see. I wasn’t high, wasn’t wired; just clear. I knew what I needed to do, and how to do it.”

    This isn’t a scene from Bradley Cooper’s actual life, of course. It’s the life of a fictional character named Eddie Morra, which Cooper portrayed in the 2011 thriller Limitless. Right now, I’m psyching myself up for a Bradley Cooper moment of my own. My version of the make-believe NZT is a little, white, very real pill named Modalert. Produced by Indian manufacturer Sun Pharmaceuticals, the drug’s generic name is modafinil and it costs around $2 per 200mg dose. In Australia, it’s only prescribed to narcoleptics and shift workers who have difficulty staying awake. I’ve acquired some through an online retailer and at 5pm on a Monday, I take the drug for the first time.

    By 10pm I’m wide awake, and aware that my resting heart-rate is higher than normal. By midnight my mind is racing around like an agitated puppy: “Hey! Here I am! Play with me!” I occupy myself with the normally tedious task of transcribing interviews; when I next look at the clock, it’s 3.30am and I’m finished. I’m washing dishes to take a break from work, when I realise that my randomly chosen soundtrack has taken on an eerie parallel to real life. In the classic Nas track ‘N.Y. State of Mind’, he raps: “I never sleep / ‘Cuz sleep is the cousin of death.”

    For as long as I can remember, my answer to that age-old ‘just one wish’ hypothetical has been ‘to never fatigue’. To never need to sleep. To be able to learn, create and achieve more than any regular human being because I’m no longer confined by the boring necessity of a good night’s sleep.

    Thanks to modafinil, I’m closer to this long-held dream than ever before. And I feel incredible. Not high, not wired; just clear. The computer in my skull is crunching ones and zeroes while the rest of the world sleeps. I yawn occasionally, but my mind feels focused, at capacity, even as 5am approaches.

    It’s a kind of cognitive dissonance I’ve never experienced before; I know I should be feeling fatigued by now, but everything’s still working well. At 8.30am – roughly fifteen hours after taking the drug, which corresponds with its stated half-life – its effects wear off, and fatigue sets in. I take a three-hour nap, then pop another modafinil upon waking. I’m back on the merry-go-round of sleeplessness, and loving it.

    Giddy at the near-endless productivity possibilities that I’ve suddenly unlocked, I confess my off-label use of Modalert to a Sun Pharma spokesperson via email in a moment of clarity (or, perhaps, over-earnest honesty). The reply arrives in my inbox a short time later, and I’m briefly quietened by its ominous tone.

    “You’ve seen Limitless?” the Indian drug rep replies. “The cost is too much. Please evaluate what you are doing, even for test purposes. Neuronal circuitry is not to be messed with.”

    ++

    Modafinil is the brightest star in a galaxy of drugs and supplements called ‘nootropics’. The word was coined by a Romanian doctor in 1972; in Greek, its definition refers to ‘turning the mind’. More commonly known as ‘smart drugs’ or ‘cognitive enhancers’, nootropics work in one of three ways: by altering the availability of the brain’s supply of neurochemicals; by improving the brain’s oxygen supply; or by stimulating nerve growth.

    Smart drugs are not a new concept. Last century, both cocaine and amphetamine were considered to have enhancement potential. As researchers at the University of Queensland wrote in a 2012 paper, “…their use for this purpose was regarded in a wholly positive light. [Cocaine and amphetamine] were seen as safe and effective ‘wonder drugs’ that increased alertness and mental capabilities, thereby allowing users to cope better with the increasing demands of modern life.” These views became unpopular once both substances were found to be addictive: cocaine became a prohibited substance, though amphetamine is still widely prescribed as a treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) under the brand name Adderall.

    The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), Australian drug regulation authority, does not yet recognise nootropics as a class of drug, as “the information available on nootropic products provides a very broad definition.” A TGA spokesperson tells Rolling Stone that they are unable to comment on the matter, as “the issue here is that the definition of nootropics goes from nutritional supplements all the way through to prescription medicines, so depending on what the product is and its claims, it might be considered as listable, a registered complementary medicine, or a registered prescription medicine.”

    So regulation is a murky topic, then. But nootropics aren’t illegal, either. Admittedly, taking modafinil off-label is not a smart thing to do. I am not a narcoleptic. I sleep just fine, if begrudgingly. I am a healthy 24 year-old male who exercises regularly and eats well. My recreational drug use is occasional. I’ve never been addicted to anything, and I intend to keep that clean sheet. I would like to be able to concentrate for long periods during the work week, though. I’d like to be able to instantly summon previously forgotten snatches of glanced-at facts. In short, I’d like to be smarter. Who wouldn’t?

    In the fictional account of Limitless and its inspiration, a 2001 techno-thriller by Irish author Alan Glynn named The Dark Fields, the universally appealing idea of self-improvement through minimal effort is explored by a guy taking a designer drug to boost his brainpower to superhuman levels. In reality, nootropic enthusiasts claim significant cognitive benefits with few, if any, side effects from taking these supposedly non-addictive, non-toxic substances.

    Sounds too good to be true? You bet. With my bullshit detector cranked up to eleven, I’m wading into this contentious field with the goal of separating science from fiction. Are smart drugs the snake oil of the 21st century? Or am I about to become a better man just by taking a bunch of coloured pills?

    ++

    After Eddie Morra tires of writing while under the influence of NZT, he turns his attention to the far more lucrative stock market. When I tire of writing on modafinil, I waste away the night-time hours by shooting terrorists in Counter-Strike: Source online, trawling internet forums, and reading about nootropics.

    With a newfound surplus of time arises an interesting dilemma: how to spend it? I chose to alternately work, read, and play games. What if every night was like that, though? What if I had all that time? How soon would I become accustomed to operating on little, or zero, sleep? What would be the side-effects of this for my health, my relationships, my career? Would I become a kinder person? Would parts of my personality become amplified, or atrophy? Obvious productivity gains – or productivity opportunity gains – aside, would less sleep make me a better person?

    All Tuesday night, I’m keyed into a writing task with laser-like focus. By sunrise, I’ve produced an article which, at the time, feels like some of my best work yet. (When it’s published online, weeks later, I read it with fresh eyes and I’m pleasantly surprised to find that I still feel the same way.) On Wednesday, I choose to take a break from the drug, but I’m still up until 4am. My sleep cycle has been totally disrupted.

    Thursday just feels like a regular day. I’m yawning more than usual, probably due to the sleep debt I’ve incurred this week. But it does feel a little… boring to be operating at this level, rather than on modafinil, where I feel like I’m connecting all of the dots all of the time. I suddenly find myself weighing up the costs and benefits of taking a pill right now. I have nothing in particular that needs to be completed for the remainder of the week, but there’s an internal argument happening: “Being awake is so much more enjoyable than sleeping. Who needs sleep, honestly?”

    I dose another 200mg, and within the hour, I again find myself making connections in music that I’d never previously noticed. The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club song ‘Stop’ aligns with my current mindset: “We don’t know where to stop / I try and I try but I can’t get enough…

    I feel like an outlaw; as though I’m in on a secret to which everyone else is oblivious. I know how to subvert sleep; that knowledge is in the shape of a small white disc containing 200mg of modafinil. I feel as though taking this drug might be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I want everyone around me to take it, too, so that we can share our experiences and revel in the euphoria of the unclouded mind.

    That night, I drive to and from a rock show. I meet friends and strangers at the venue; as I talk, I feel as though I’m not making sense, and that those around me are acutely aware of this. I feel in control, but my mind is racing faster than my mouth can keep up. I buy one beer and feel a little drunk, but I don’t come close to crashing my car on the drive home. Around 2am, I note that I’ve got an impending feeling of doom going on. Like I’m riding this too far, and it’s about to start doing some serious damage. I turn in at 3.30am on Friday.

    My first nootropic odyssey whimpers to a close, after beginning with a giddy bang at 10am on Monday morning. I’ve taken three 200mg doses of modafinil during that time – 5pm Monday, 1pm Tuesday, 2.30pm Thursday – and napped for around 11 hours total. In all, I’ve been awake for 79 out of the last 90 hours.

    I arise at midday, refreshed, having effectively reset my debt with one normal sleep. I reflect on how my views toward modafinil have veered between utter devotion to, now, in the cold light of day, a realisation that it’s probably not a good idea to be taking that shit on consecutive days. I was feeling so fucking average the night before. I couldn’t bear the thought of continuing to stay awake. The body and the mind aren’t made for it.

    ++

    Next, I purchase some homemade nootropics from a vendor named Tryptamine on Silk Road (SR), an anonymous online market where illicit drugs are purchased with virtual currency and sent through the international postal system. Tryptamine’s vendor profile states, “I am a biologist who develops nutritional supplements to improve your health, sleep, and cognition. I use only natural or orthomolecular ingredients, and no adverse effects have been reported from my products.”

    Tryptamine makes and sells three nootropics. I order two 24-pill bottles of MindFood (“designed to optimize brain function, protect against stress- and drug-induced neurotoxicity, prevent/alleviate hangovers, and reverse brain aging,” among other alleged effects), and ChillPill (“designed to promote relaxation, attenuate stress, calm excess brain activity, enhance mood, and promote dreaming”). The seller kindly includes a bonus five-pill sampler of ThinkDeep (“designed to stimulate brain metabolism and glucose uptake, improve memory formation/recall, expand attention span, prevent mental fatigue and enhance blood flow”), too.

    The total cost is around AUD$100. As I pay this seemingly exorbitant amount, I’m reminded of that old aphorism about fools and their money. The package lands in my mailbox via the state of New York around two weeks later. The pills are brightly coloured and strong-smelling. I try all three nootropics in isolation, one or two at a time, on different days.

    After swallowing a ThinkDeep for the first time, I realise that I just took an anonymous black and red pill created by an anonymous internet seller who claims to be a biologist. They’ve got a 100% feedback record from over 400 transactions on SR, which counts as a sort of social proof, but still: bad things could happen to me after taking this pill, and the person responsible would never be caught out. (Tryptamine denied Rolling Stone’s request to verify his/her identity, or scientific credentials. “Whatever image you have in your mind’s eye from reading this, that’s how I look,” the seller wrote.)

    “Silk Road allows me to sell my products anonymously, and provides me with hundreds of thousands of potential customers who already take pills that aren’t made by pharmaceutical companies,” Tryptamine tells me. “On the other hand, it is a bit off-putting to see my products listed beside bags of heroin.”

    As it turns out, ThinkDeep doesn’t do much for me, even on another day when I double-dose. In fact, the only significant effect I notice from these three products is when one dose of MindFood eradicates a hangover much faster than my regular methods of paracetamol and/or ibuprofen. Perhaps ThinkDeep and ChillPill are so subtle that I don’t notice their effects; perhaps they don’t work at all. Potential hangover cure aside, it’s difficult to recommend these products for cognitive enhancement purposes.

    At the other end of the nootropic spectrum, far from secretive biologists and solo recipe-tweaking, is an Austin, Texas-based company named Onnit. Their flagship product is named Alpha Brain, which is slickly marketed as a “complete balanced nootropic”. Their biggest public advocate is the comedian, podcaster and former host of Fear Factor, Joe Rogan; they also have a few World Series of Poker players hyping the product on their website. I ordered a 30-pill bottle of Alpha Brain for around $40.

    Each green pill includes small amounts of eleven impressive-sounding substances, from vitamin B6 and vinpocetine, to L-theanine and oat straw. The serving size on the label suggests two pills at a time; as I discover, taking one does nothing. With two Alpha Brain pills circulating in my system, though, I feel an overall mood elevation and a heightened ability to concentrate on tasks at hand: reading, writing, researching. These effects last for between four to six hours.

    Alpha Brain worked for me, but it also feels like a triumph of marketing, too. As there are no clear estimates about the financial side of the nootropics industry, I ask Onnit CEO Aubrey Marcus whether it’s a lucrative field. “Absolutely,” he replies, though he won’t comment on Onnit’s annual turnover. “It’s something that everybody can benefit from. Whenever you tap into something [like that], there’s ample opportunity to make good money.” Marcus says that Alpha Brain has been purchased by around 45,000 customers across the world since launching last year. The company currently employs 13 full-time staff.

    He acknowledges that nutritional supplement manufacturers are met with their fair share of critics. “The pharmaceutical industry has done a good job of telling people that synthetic drugs are the only things that have an effect on the body. There are plenty who’ve never tried our products who’ll swear that they’re snake oil,” Marcus laughs. “We encounter that, and we just do our best to show as much research behind all the ingredients that we have.” He mentions that Onnit are intending to commission a double-blind clinical study on the effects of Alpha Brain, which he believes “will go a long way to silence the critics.”

    ++

    Perhaps nootropics aren’t a mainstream concept yet because the people most enthusiastic about their potential benefits are all scientists, marketers out to make a buck, ‘body hackers’, and other weirdoes. There are few ‘normals’ taking these drugs and supplements on a daily basis, so it all looks too strange and confronting for outsiders to try. As a society, we’re taught by our peers and the media that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

    There’s also the possibility that nootropics will never become mainstream because their effectiveness is difficult to qualitatively measure, or alternatively, they don’t work at all. In this regard, Australian researchers are world-class sceptics of cognitive enhancement. When I visit the University Of Queensland’s Centre for Clinical Research (UQCCR) in Brisbane, I’m greeted by Professor Wayne Hall, who was first published on this topic in 2004. His essay, which appeared in a European biology journal, was entitled “Feeling ‘better than well’: Can our experiences with psychoactive drugs help us to meet the challenges of neuroenhancement methods?”

    Hall has studied addiction and drug use for over 20 years. “There’s been a fair amount of enthusiasm for cognitive enhancement [in scientific circles], but it hasn’t looked critically at the evidence on how common this behaviour is,” he says. The professor and his peers argue for “taking a step back, and not getting too excited or encourage unwittingly lots of people to experiment with stimulant drugs for the wrong sorts of reasons”.

    “If you look at the lab studies that have been done on whether these drugs [work], the effects – insofar as there are some – are fairly modest and short-lived,” Hall says. “To be jumping from that, to saying it’s good idea for people to be using these drugs regularly to enhance their cognitive performance, is a bit of a long bow.”

    Dr Bradley Partridge is another UQCCR academic who specialises in investigating “the use of pharmaceuticals by healthy people to enhance their cognition”. I bring along my bottles of Alpha Brain and Tryptamine’s homemade nootropics for him to cast a critical eye over. “I have never used any of these things,” Partridge says. He peers at the labels with bemusement. “And I’ve never heard of most of these ingredients.”

    He places the bottles back on the table. “The thing is, a lot of these supplements are touted as being ‘all natural’, and for some people, that implies that they’re perhaps safe. But it’s very hard to evaluate exactly what’s in it. Aside from safety, where’s the evidence that they actually work for their stated purpose?”

    “There’s no scientific literature on some of this stuff; for others, the results are very mixed. Also, there might be a really strong placebo effect.” He holds up the Alpha Brain bottle, which mentions ‘enhancing mental performance’ in its marketing copy. “You take this and you do an exam; maybe simply taking something makes you feel like you ought to be doing better, and maybe you convince yourself that you’re getting some effect.”

    Hall and Partridge co-authored a study which analysed media reports on “smart drugs”. They found that 95 per cent of media reports mentioned some benefit of taking a drug like Adderall, Ritalin or modafinil, while only 58 per cent mentioned side effects. “I tend to be very cautious about this stuff,” Partridge says. “I don’t like to see this getting portrayed as a widespread phenomenon, as a fantastic thing, that it works, that there are no side effects. That runs the risk of encouraging people who hadn’t thought about it to take it up, which could cause problems for people.”

    I offer to leave some of my nootropics with Dr Partridge for him to conduct his own research; he laughs, and politely declines.

    ++

    Underscoring this entire discussion is the threat of one-upmanship. If I’m taking these drugs and they markedly improve my performance, am I nothing but a filthy nootropic cheater? To address this question, I spoke with Dave Asprey, who has used modafinil constantly for eight years and describes himself on Twitter as a “New York Times-published Silicon Valley entrepreneur/executive/angel who hacked his own biology to gain an unfair advantage in business and life.”

    Asprey has a prescription for the drug, after a brain scan showed a lack of blood flow at the front of his brain – a common symptom of attention deficit disorder (ADD), he says. “Modafinil is actually used commonly as a treatment for ADD,” he tells me. “It’s an off-label use, but it’s accepted; it’s even reimbursable by some insurance companies.”

    Asprey takes modafinil most workdays, upon waking. “It’s not like it’s a great secret out there, it’s just that people don’t talk about it because there’s some feel as though it’s ‘cheating’,” he says. “My perspective is different: if you eat healthy food, then you’re also ‘cheating’, because that impacts brain function. Surprisingly, the only people who’ve ever given me shit about taking modafinil are like, ‘but how do you know it’s not hurting you?’ I’m a bio-hacker; I’ve done all sorts of strange things to my body and mind in the interests of anti-aging, health and performance. I look at my body as part of my support system.’”

    Asprey says that he considers modafinil to be on the healthier spectrum of drugs. He’s also a fan of aniracetam, a fat soluble version of piracetam, which itself was the first-ever nootropic discovered in 1964. “It’s longer lasting [than piracetam],” Asprey says. “I recommend it as a basic biohack. I’ve been using it for a very long time.”

    Though Asprey has never met anyone who bluntly considers nootropics to be bullshit, he hears another argument reasonably often – and he has a clever rebuttal ready. “People say, ‘[nootropics] are evil, because if you take them, then everyone else will have to take them!’ I don’t think that’s a very fair argument, because from that perspective, fire is evil. Back when there were two cavemen, and one had a fire, the other said, ‘you can’t use fire, that’s unfair!’ Well, we know who evolved.”

    ++

    Whether or not I’m qualitatively smarter after experimenting with nootropics for this story is difficult to measure. I feel slightly wiser, and more aware of the limitations of both mind and body after that week of bingeing on modafinil. I certainly appreciate the restorative value of sleep better than ever before, after staying awake for the best part of a full work-week. I found that Alpha Brain is useful for focusing for a few hours, but considering that a two-week supply costs $40, it seems a touch on the expensive side.

    I did order a few dozen additional pills of modafinil, but I intend to use these only when emergency deadlines necessitate long hours. (I’ve read it’s good for combating the effects of jet lag, though, so perhaps I’ll try it on my next international flight.) Ultimately, the nootropic I found most useful – and intend to continue using regularly – is aniracetam, which Dave Asprey told me about. Its mind-sharpening effects are subtler than Alpha Brain, but it’s much cheaper – around $40 for a month’s supply if purchased online – and its effects taper off much more pleasantly than Alpha Brain’s comparatively sudden drop-off in concentration and energy levels.

    Late one night while researching this story, modafinil coursing through my body, I watched Limitless for the second time. It’s not a brilliant film, but it’s entertaining and thought-provoking enough to make the viewer consider seeking out smart pills of their own. It’s easy to see why the nootropic industry’s shadier sellers have attempted to draw parallels between their products and the fictional substance of NZT. After viewing the film, I contacted Alan Glynn, the author behind the 2001 techno-thriller The Dark Fields, which Limitless was based on, via email.

    “The original idea of NZT – called MDT-48 in my book – came from the idea of human perfectibility, of ‘the three wishes’, of the chance to re-invent yourself, of the shortcut to health and happiness,” Glynn tells me. “This is why the diet and self-help industries are so huge. Hold out a promise like that and people will respond. The fact that most of these products and therapies don’t work, or are bogus, doesn’t seem to matter. The real magic here, the real dark art, is marketing. I think that if nootropics ever go mainstream, they’ll be fodder for the marketing industry.”

    I send Glynn a link to the Alpha Brain website and mention that I’ve been taking it while researching this story. “Look, I’m just as much of a sucker as anyone else and when I look at that website, I’m going like, ‘Woah, gimme some of THAT!’” he replies. “And I’m actually seriously considering ordering some. So, from a marketing point of view, I’d say it’s a total success. It’s shiny, professional-looking and stuffed full of ‘the science bit’.”

    “But it’s the massaging of the science bit that is the marketer’s real dark art. The truth is, I couldn’t argue with someone who can talk about ‘GPC choline’ and ‘neurotransmitter precursors’. My instinct is that it’s all bullshit… On the other hand. I don’t know. Have you taken Alpha Brain? Does it work?”

    I reply in the affirmative, and describe my findings in some detail. Alan Glynn, author of the book that inspired the movie that inspired me to write this story in the first place, writes me back immediately: “That’s interesting indeed. I’ve ordered some Alpha Brain, and I’ve just got an email to say it’s been dispatched. I’ll report back to you – in the interests of science, of course.”

    Note: At no point should any of the products mentioned in this article be ingested without first consulting a health professional. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Ritalin as an amphetamine; it belongs to the methylphenidate class of stimulants.

    To read more on nootropics, I recommend that you continue your research at Smarter Nootropics. Good luck!

  • Why it took nearly three months to remove offensive graffiti from my street in New Farm, Brisbane, October 2012

    “FUCK NIGGERS,” read the graffiti in large, white, spraypainted letters.

    I know the graffiti well because we lived on the same street in New Farm, an inner-city suburb of Brisbane – population 12,500 – which, up until recently, I’d understood as one of the city’s most socially progressive neighbourhoods. Yet there they were, two words utterly incongruous with social progression painted onto the brickwork of the ‘Bowen Gardens’ apartment complex, 484 Bowen Terrace, right beside the eight mailboxes that its residents check daily.

    When I first saw the words on 2 August 2012, I stopped and pondered the paint. It was unsettling to see it displayed so prominently, on a highly-trafficked road that runs parallel to Brunswick Street, the suburb’s main thoroughfare. I was compelled enough to take a photo on my phone. This wasn’t right.

    As a fan and student of hip-hop, I’m familiar with – and fond of – both words being used in abundance. Expressed in these terms, though – one word followed by the other, in isolation – I encountered a feeling of deep discomfort. Of shame.

    After I took the photo, I walked home and told myself that someone else would deal with this problem. I thought about the broken windows theory, which posits that the best way to deal with vandalism and anti-social behaviour is to fix problems when they’re small, lest those small problems become large. Surely, the residents of Bowen Gardens would band together and paint over the graffiti, or at least cover it up. Surely they were embarrassed to see those words every day.

    It’s impossible to know whether the words were written with hate in mind, or whether the graffitist was being playful, or ironic. In the absence of context, the imagination of the passerby fills in the blanks. I chose not to see a playful joke. I saw no irony. I saw a statement which jarred with my reality of life in New Farm, Brisbane, circa 2012.

    The phrase “FUCK NIGGERS” doesn’t belong anywhere in my life, hip-hop appreciation aside. I don’t want to read those words as I walk down my street. From the moment I first saw the graffiti, I was disgusted. Yet the longer the graffiti lived on, the more it consumed my thoughts; the more it became a part of my life.

    Weeks passed. I walked by the words several times each week; to and from the local basketball court, to and from the supermarket. Each time my eyes passed across the text, I asked myself why nothing had been done.

    My thoughts turned to buying a can of spraypaint and modifying it myself; perhaps by replacing the second word with “BIGOTS”. I questioned what the ongoing display of these words said about New Farm, about the residents of Bowen Terrace.

    I questioned what the words said about me, for I was similarly to blame for this ongoing broadcast. I’d done as much as anyone else: namely, nothing. Since my inaction had formed a kind of tacit acceptance – I’d acknowledged to myself that the graffiti existed, yet I chose not to intervene – I wondered what the graffiti said about my own cowardice.

    I thought about the nature of offence, which cut to the heart of why the graffiti unsettled me so: in base terms, it offended me. I found the tag offensive because I read it as a targeted, malicious comment toward a group of humans. I did not sympathise with the sentiment of the comment – “FUCK NIGGERS” – and so I was offended. Again and again.

    One afternoon, it all became too much. While practicing basketball at the local court, after walking by the text for perhaps the thirtieth time, I drafted a letter in my head to the residents of Bowen Gardens. It read:

    “Greetings! I am a journalist who lives further up Bowen Terrace. I’m writing to enquire about the graffiti that’s been spraypainted onto the front of Bowen Gardens. You may have seen it. You might even have glanced at it today before opening your mailbox to find this note. I would like to ask you a few questions about this graffiti, at your earliest convenience. Please call, message or email me using the details below. ”

    I printed and signed eight copies of this note – seven for the residents, one for the body corporate – and pushed them through each letterbox at 3pm on Wednesday, 19 September.

    I didn’t expect a reply from any of the residents, as I had effectively drawn attention to their tacit acceptance of the statement. This would undoubtedly cause embarrassment to all who read the note, as it reminded the reader that other locals, too, had eyes and were unimpressed with the graffiti: its content, its permanence, their inaction.

    I did, however, expect that the words would be removed by the body corporate, or at least covered up, soon after I’d mailed those eight notes.

    I was wrong.

    ++

    On the morning of Wednesday, October 3, an acting detective sergeant with the Queensland Police Service (QPS) knocks on my front door. He’s here because I’d emailed a request to the executive director of QPS media and public affairs the previous morning, stating that I was writing about this particular piece of graffiti. In the email, I wondered if I could show it to a police officer and interview them before the Bowen Gardens brickwork.

    My request was passed through a few hands until it landed with the detective sergeant, who works with the Brisbane City Council’s cutely-acronymed Taskforce Against Graffiti. Over the phone that afternoon, he had asked me whether the graffiti was painted on public or private property. I told him that I wasn’t sure; the brickwork is part of a private dwelling, but it extends onto the footpath and is displayed prominently.

    The last question he asked me was, “Do you find it offensive?”
    “Yes,” I replied.

    While the detective sergeant and I walk down Bowen Terrace together – he isn’t authorised to give media interviews, so I won’t identify him – I think about how bizarre it is that this seemingly simple concern has now drawn the attention of a high-ranking police officer.

    This is a privilege afforded to me as a journalist, of course: any request from the news media is dealt with seriously, lest an error, inaction or omission land QPS in hot water. We arrive at the graffiti, which has now stood loud and proud before Bowen Gardens for over two months, broadcasting its residents’ apparent bigotry to all and sundry.

    If the detective sergeant is shocked by the words, he doesn’t show it. I tell him about the note I wrote to the seven residents and their body corporate two weeks ago, inviting their comment on the graffiti. I tell him that I haven’t heard back from anyone. He writes “FUCK NIGGERS” in his notebook, in quotation marks.

    “I don’t like it, either,” he says. He explains that the brickwork is indeed private property; the Brisbane City Council is responsible for the footpath, but not the brick structure itself. He tells me he’ll knock on some doors in an effort to contact the body corporate. The detective sergeant hands me his card, shakes my hand, and we part ways.

    All of a sudden, while walking back up the hill, I feel foolish. I had approached this as a concerned New Farm resident first, journalist second, yet by escalating this concern to the Queensland Police Service I’ve leapfrogged the ordinary council graffiti-removal process available to New Farm residents: namely, to fill out an online complaint form and wait for a response. Perhaps I’m making a mountain out of a molehill.

    The detective sergeant calls me soon after, saying that he’d spoken to a female resident of Bowen Gardens. She said that the residents had asked body corporate for some chemicals to remove the graffiti. Their attempts to do so had evidently failed. He tells me that he’ll put a removal request through to the council, and that it’ll be gone within 24 hours. We thank each other, and say our goodbyes once again. And that, it seemed, was the end of that.

    ++

    Not quite. Sadly, it took another fifteen days for the tag to be removed. I followed up with the detective sergeant via email on October 10, one week after we’d met and inspected the graffiti together. “From memory, you told me last Wednesday, 3 October, that the incident had been reported and that the graffiti would be removed within 24 hours,” I wrote. “Is this correct, or did I mishear? As of 12pm today, the graffiti is still there.”

    I got a reply on October 15, five days later. “I was informed that the Graffiti is usually removed within 24 hrs of reporting if the material is deemed to be offensive which of course it was!” he wrote. “I will take up with the Brisbane City Council and see where they are with this job that was logged that very day that I spoke to you!”

    I offered for the detective sergeant to put me directly in touch with the council graffiti removal team. He wrote back: “I will get a response Andrew and let you know as I was of the opinion that it should have been done!”

    Three days later, just after midday on Thursday, October 18, another email from the detective sergeant arrived. “Good afternoon Andrew, I have been informed that the Brisbane City Council removed that graffiti this morning and the wall is now clean. Thankyou for bringing it to the attention of Police and the Council.”

    I walked down the street to fact-check. He was right.

    I’m glad that the graffiti is gone, but my eyes will be drawn back to that spot on the brickwork as long as I live on Bowen Terrace. Every time I pass by Bowen Gardens, I’ll think about those two words and their 80-odd days of existence. I’ll wonder how long they would’ve stayed there if I hadn’t intervened. (Or if I hadn’t followed up with the detective after our meeting, even.)

    I’ll look at the bricks and I’ll wonder why I didn’t act earlier. I’ll wonder why no-one else made a complaint. And I’ll vow to never again let my inaction bleed into tacit acceptance of a malicious, hateful statement made public, writ large, in my own neighbourhood.

    Andrew McMillen (@NiteShok) is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist. 

  • Album biography: Grinspoon – ‘Black Rabbits’, September 2012

    An album biography I wrote for the Australian rock band Grinspoon as part of the press pack that was sent out with their seventh album, Black Rabbits, released 28 September 2012. Click the below image to view as a PDF.

    Grinspoon – Black Rabbits

    Bad habits. We’ve all got ‘em. Some are more public and less healthy than others. As far as Australian rock bands go, Grinspoon are more readily associated with that phrase than most. It’s fitting, then, that they’ve chosen to name their seventh album after Cockney slang for bad habits: Black Rabbits.

    These twelve tracks are the sound of a rock band experimenting with power-pop aesthetics, and succeeding. Following the heavy rock barrage heard on the East Coast quartet’s last album, 2009’s Six To Midnight, singer Phil Jamieson and guitarist Pat Davern were both motivated to write “lighter, more melodic” material.

    “We were going for big choruses and major melodies,” says Jamieson. “Lyrically, I was writing on themes that weren’t too downtrodden, or too angsty. Musically, we wanted tighter arrangements all ‘round.”

    Davern agrees. “I’d describe it as more ‘songy’ than ‘riffy’. I didn’t want to do another Six To Midnight, which had a lot of aggression. I didn’t feel like writing that kind of music.”

    “I was listening to a lot of four-on-the-floor,” continues Davern. “We hadn’t really done any of that driving beat, groove-based stuff, which has more forward-motion than sideways-motion. I definitely had that in the back of my mind when I was writing: ‘I want this to be up.’ I didn’t want there to be any kind of negativity or anger going on musically. I don’t feel that way, and I don’t want to feel that way musically anymore. I think you can hear that in the music that came out. It’s different for us.”

    Emphatic lead single ‘Passerby’, at radio and available August 13th, acts as both album opener and a lens onto the band’s newfound emphasis on melody and groove. It’s the foundation song of Black Rabbits; the artistic breakthrough that the songwriters had to have before they could build the proverbial walls and ceiling.

    “’Passerby’ was a point of difference, and it didn’t sound like we were treading water, or being lazy,” says the singer. “It didn’t sound like we were hangin’ out, smokin’ cones in Lismore – not that that’s a bad thing” he laughs. “It sounded like we were doing something.” Davern concurs: “It’s a statement of intent that we weren’t going to be doing the same shit we’d done before.”

    Los Angeles-based rock producer Dave Schiffman – whose past credits include Weezer, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and The Bronx – was chosen to handle the recording sessions, after all four members of Grinspoon fell in love with The Bronx II.

    “As history shows us, Los Angeles makes excellent rock records,” says Jamieson. “I think Led Zeppelin worked that out a long time ago. They’re just really good at rock there. They’re really point-to-point about it, so we felt that we needed to get over there this time to make this record.”

    Visitors to Schiffman’s studio included Tim Rogers (You Am I), Chris Cheney (The Living End) and Scott Russo (Unwritten Law), who all contributed back-up vocals; Cheney even lends some tasty lead guitar licks to ‘Another Sun’, which Davern describes as the album’s “Black Crowes-y, bluesy” track. ‘Casualty’ is a tale of “unrequited love, and the desperate measures one goes to, in order to feel adequate again,” says Jamieson, while ‘Branded’ is inspired by the zombie-themed television series The Walking Dead.

    The Lismore-born quartet – Jamieson, Davern, drummer Kristian Hopes and bassist Joe Hansen – burst onto the national music scene in 1995 via a string of hits which later appeared on their 1997 debut album, Guide To Better Living. The band’s six albums have sold a combined total of over 450,000 copies in Australia, including multiple platinum certifications and an ARIA Award in 2005 for Thrills, Kills & Sunday Pills (‘Best Rock Album’).

    “The reason we haven’t repeated the debut album is because we can’t,” says Jamieson. “And I don’t know whether we should, because we already did it. You just don’t want to repeat yourself, ever. The body of work you’ve released is laughing at you, going, ‘yeah, fuck you, you can’t do that again! You were awesome in 2002, dickhead!’” the singer laughs. “You’ve got to change the game for yourself, and challenge the band as to how and where you want to be.”

    The chorus in penultimate track ‘Tightrope’ is the key that unlocks the album, and moreover, the quartet themselves after seventeen years together: “You’re getting closer now to what you’ve always wanted in your life,” sings Jamieson.

    Reflecting on whether that memorable line can be self-applied, he says: “I’m not sure of what I want in my life; I don’t know whether anyone does. But this is a fucking fantastic gig, and I love it. I’m not sure where I want to be, but here’s pretty fucking good.”

    –  By Andrew McMillen

    The music video for first single ‘Passerby‘ is embedded below.